THE BAILEY LINE ROAD CHRONICLES: Chapter 9 – A Big Decision & A Near Miss

This is chapter nine in my book The Bailey Line Road Chronicles, the 30-year story about moving from the city to live a modern homestead life deep in the country on Manitoulin Island, Canada. Missed Chapter Eight? Click here to read it.


BLR ChroniclesIn the spring of 1987, we were ready to get serious with the main homestead project – building a house. I’d completed my geography degree at York University by then, I’d also become a farrier (horseshoer) over the winter with a 12 week course at a community college  – in case I ever needed to take care of horses’ feet and shoes, I figured. Now it was time to get specific about the basic ideas for home construction that Mary and I had.

For as long as I can remember, buildings have had a strong influence on me. Beautiful buildings thrill me, oppressive ones bring me down. Most modern buildings leave me at least mildly depressed, either because they were designed without beauty in mind, or they were designed with what feels like a warped sense of beauty. All this isn’t quite universal for me, but close, and  this is why I aimed for something classical, beautiful and authentic for my own house. We didn’t want a transplanted suburban house out here in the deep country, and only authentic materials would do. The house also had to be cheap to build, with lots of manual labour on our part using as many local materials as possible. As I write this, I realize how impossibly idealistic this sounds. Good thing I didn’t notice it at the time.

For years I felt the urge to build my place out of logs, even to the point where I’d spent time working with a log builder to get a sense of the process. I also bought and read every book about log construction I could find. I already knew how to work with wood, so I figured log building would be easier to learn than anything else. With more than enough big cedar trees back behind my third field (near where I’d cut those balsam poles for my shed rafters), log construction seemed perfect. After all, I’d already bought the materials when I paid for the property. Might as well use them, right?

Despite the pros about building with logs – free materials, authentic construction, and a high “naturalness” quotient – something always worried me about logs. It still does. I’d seen some beautiful log buildings over the years, but I’d also seen a number of old log homes infested with powder post beetles. These tiny insects bore little holes in the logs from inside out, leaving behind telltale piles of fine sawdust. It’s heartbreaking to see. Powder post beetle holes look like a blast of #9 shotgun pellets hit the wood. Some vintage log homes I’d seen also had rot setting into the lower courses of logs, too. Can powder post beetles and rot be eliminated in a new log home? Yes, at least for a long, long time, but the potential lack of absolute permanence with logs bothered me. So did the prospect of the ongoing work of keeping those logs finished over the years. It wasn’t until coming to Manitoulin  Island that I encountered a traditional alternative to logs, an alternative I’d never considered before.

Manitoulin is a limestone island, with bedrock showing through here and there. Due to its geographical isolation from the wider world, and the strong British work ethic that used to be common here, traditional stone construction using local limestone continued long after it was just a memory in other parts of the country. Authentic stone buildings with 24” to 36”-thick structural walls were built using hand-quarried local stone well into the 1940s. The oldest stone building I know of on Manitoulin goes back to 1888. It’s the massive, multi-story Holy Cross Mission in a Native community called Wikwemikong. This building burned in 1954, but the stunning stonework remains.

Although I’d seen a number of traditional stone buildings on Manitoulin when Mary and I first set foot here, I hadn’t thought seriously about building with stone at the time. I had no experience with it, nor had I ever heard of anyone building structural walls with stone. It just seemed like something nobody did any more, at least not until I unwrapped a Christmas present from my dad.

I bought the property in the fall of 1985, and for Christmas that year my dad gave me a book that changed the course of my personal history. It was called A Stonebuilder’s Primer by a man named Charles Long. He and his wife lived in another part of Ontario and they’d come up with a method for building with local stone as part of wood frame construction. They used a 2×6 wall frame that held up the roof, but with 8” to 10”-thick stone on the outside, sitting on its own foundation. There was a small air space between the stone and wood frame for ventilation. Within 30 seconds of unwrapping the Christmas paper on that book I decided to build with stone. Never mind that I’d never done it before. If the Longs could do it, so could I.

I have a habit of quickly making big decisions that have long-term consequences, and that habit kicked in as I began imagining how I’d build our house out of stone. “A stone house should have a stone foundation”, I thought. “A real, thick, authentic stone foundation. It’s only right. No fake blocks or poured concrete for me.”

BLR ChroniclesMy plan was to build the basement out of stone, both to keep things authentic and to give me experience working with stone before I got up top where people would see my work. It wouldn’t hurt that this option would cost almost no money, either. The job of building a house from stone would turn out to be bigger than I realized at the time – bigger and harder to learn. I’ve picked up different skills over the years, but learning to quarry natural stone from the ground and building with it took more time to learn than anything else I’ve done. Looking back on it, I’m embarrassed to say how long. Our 34’ x 44’ basement with 24”-thick walls took Mary and I three seasons and about 2500 hours of work to build. It took perhaps another 500 hours before I was completely at ease, confident and stress-free as I worked with stone.

I say “stress-free” not because I was worried about the structural integrity of the results, but because the action of working with natural stone is inherently stressful, at least until you get completely proficient. The work can create a kind of under-current of irritation in you without you realizing why. Ivan Bailey used to say that stonemasons were the grumpiest tradesmen on the building site in his day, and I understand why. There’s a certain inner turmoil that stone building creates in a person’s soul, and it’s different than with other trades. At least the potential for this inner turmoil exists, anyway. Here’s how it feels . . .

You’re looking at the stone wall you’re building and you need a stone that’s the right height and length to fit into a certain spot. The thing is, stone is reluctant to yield to the wishes of human beings. Very reluctant. Besides being hard, stone is also prone to breaking badly if you attempt to shape it in the wrong way. Sometimes it even breaks badly when you attempt to shape it the right way. So the under-current of irritation that sets in is the product of a tug-of-war. It’s like dealing with a constantly disobedient dog. You need a stone of a certain size, but your ability to create a stone of that size is limited. The material has its own ideas. Your progress creating the particular stone is slow, and sometimes after investing 20 minutes shaping a particular stone, the thing breaks badly on the last few strokes and you need to start again.

In practice, the routine goes something like this during the frustrating phase of learning to work with stone: “I need a stone that’s 16 1/4” long and 5 1/2” thick”, you say to yourself. The closest I can find in my pile of building stone is 18 1/2” x 7”.  After hammering to make the stone shorter and thinner, you set it in place and find that it’s actually still too thick. You’ve miscalculated, so you need to lift the stone off and work it some more. And after all this, when you’ve got the stone nearly ready to fit, it might break badly, becoming useless for that location. Can you see how this is inherently different than putting up vinyl siding, shingling a roof or working with more obliging materials? When it comes to natural stonework, you’re dealing with a very raw material with a marked stubborn streak.

The difference between stoneworking for me now and stoneworking back then is that I can make the “disobedient dog” do what’s right with little effort. Although my tools are still simple, 99 times out of 100 I don’t have a stone do anything other than what I want it to do, and I can make this happen in less than 20% the time it used to take. When I work with stone today I still marvel at how easy it is now compared with how hard it was years ago. The moral of the story for me is to remember how learning things sometimes takes way more time than you’d imagine. I’ve got a handful of things in my life right now that remind me of the struggle that stoneworking used to be. I’m better at dealing with them because I know that sometimes difficult things sometimes seem impossible. Don’t be fooled. Given enough time, difficult can actually become easy.

Only part of my slow stoneworking learning curve back then was because it’s just plain hard, slow, manually-intensive work. There’s a reason that brick, block and poured concrete were invented. Stone may be the king of building materials, but it’s also the slowest of all to learn to work with. You can spend 20 years gaining the skills to build a stone wall that takes a month to construct, while a high school student and a cement truck can pour that same wall from concrete in half an hour.

One reason it took me a long time to learn stoneworking is that building with stone structurally is almost a completely dead trade. There are only a few suppliers of the necessary tools in the world, and there are almost no working tradesmen who can pass on the knowledge. Stoneworking isn’t like woodworking where there’s a large and active body of enthusiasts around the world sharing their knowledge. I’ve only ever met one man who was what I’d call a true working master of traditional stonework. He was from Yugoslavia and I met him working on the restoration of an old stone courthouse in the little Manitoulin town of Gore Bay in 1989. Knowing what I know now, I saved my oldest son Robert about three years of struggle when I handed him my tools and gave him a couple of days of instruction. After that he was building as well as I was after 2000 hours of frustration.

Although I was more-or-less on my own learning to work with stone, I wasn’t completely alone. Lucky for me there was also a retired traditional stonemason nearby. Very nearby, and his name was Ivan Bailey, that new Manitoulin neighbour that you’ve been getting to know. I’ve explained before how Ivan built and operated Moonbeam Camp as a tourist destination, mostly for Americans coming up from Ohio, Indiana, New York and Kentucky to escape summer heat in the era before air conditioning. Ivan also farmed the land we now own and he did carpentry work and stonemasonry. Ivan was one of the men on the crews who built those old stone buildings I’d seen on Manitoulin when I first arrived – the buildings that went up long after other places had abandon traditional stonework in favour of more modern construction methods.

Ivan began building with stone as a self-taught mason in the 1930s to supplement the meager income from the farm. He worked on a number of buildings in the 1940s that remain as landmarks today, plus chimneys and fireplaces around the island. He worked exclusively using limestone slabs he pried up with a bar and broke using a 14 lbs sledge hammer. More of the same cost-free, sweat-intensive building material that was all around me then and now.

When Mary and I were looking for land on that first visit to Manitoulin in August 1985, Mary was particularly certain that Lot 30, Concession 3 in Burpee Township on what would become known as Bailey Line Road was the place for us. There was no doubt in her mind, and perhaps part of this had to do with some kind of premonition about Ivan. He proved to be a valuable guide to us in so many ways, and perhaps most notably when it came time for me to learn to work with stone.

Ivan was the kind of guy who taught things quietly, occasionally and only once. And I strongly suspect that if you ever told him to mind his own business after he’d offered advice, he’d never offer his two-cents to you again, even if you were just about to drive over a cliff he knew about. I always welcomed Ivan’s input, but before I explain how he got me going with stonework, I need to tell you how Ivan saved me from a huge disaster. It happened in the spring of 1986. Mary and I hadn’t yet built The Shed at that time, but I figured I should at least determine where our house would be before I got going with the outhouse, well, shelter and other desperately needed amenities.

Have you ever noticed how you can have very firm, well thought-out plans, only to find that reality quickly teaches you a much better way to do things once you get going? Reality teaches you, but only you can decide if you’ll accept the lesson. It all comes down to pride versus humility. You can either let pride keep you married to that bad plan, or you can swallow your pride, forget the time you invested in coming to a wrong decision, then move ahead according to reality’s teachings. A choice between pride and humility was coming up for me, but like all such choices, it’s not always obvious what you’re dealing with at the time. This is especially true when you’re 23 years old. It’s only by the narrowest of margins that I avoided making a massive and irreparable mistake on the house.

My original plan for the house had been to go with no basement  – just a foundation wall, then the house sitting on top. This isn’t because I didn’t like having a basement, but because I really wanted to build on bedrock. The certainty of building on a foundation like this is unbeatable, but I had no way of finding bedrock unless it was close to the surface – too close to allow for a basement. That’s where my 1/2” diameter steel rod came into play.

This rod was one of the things I brought up from the city and I used a sledge hammer to drive it into the soil to find bedrock. The silty clay loam on our property is heavy and makes for hard pounding. That’s why I only found bedrock in places with shallow soil.  I’d spent a whole day in June 1987 pounding the rod in and pulling it out, looking for bedrock in areas of my front field where I figured a house could go. I didn’t want to be too close to Ivan’s house, but also not too closed to Weldon’s farm on the other side of the road. It was about supper time on a sunny, pleasant summer day when I’d settled on my spot for the house and marked it with stakes and strings. I didn’t think to bring string with me from the city, so all I had was some butcher twine I’d picked up at a little general store about 10 minutes drive from our property.  It’s surprisingly difficult to stake out the rectangular foot print of a house with square corners unless you know a trick or two. Back then I knew no tricks.

It was about 8pm on that sunny evening in June 1986 when Ivan wandered over from his house just after I’d finished tying on the last string. “Is that where you’ll build your house?” The question was simple, but I knew there was something else coming. “Yes, I want to build on bedrock and I’ve found it by pounding this rod into the ground.” I could feel myself trying to convince Ivan that my location was a good one, and the fact that I’d spent all day finding it and laying out the strings counted for something. It didn’t.

“It get wet there in the spring. The water runs down this low spot and you’ve put your stakes right in the middle of it. If I were building I’d put my house over there”, pointing to the highest spot in the field, a place where I never did hit bedrock because the soil was too deep. After that comment Ivan said nothing. He just turned around and walked back home. In a few minutes I could hear him playing his fiddle outside his side door, the one surrounded by the cedar trees he love so much.

One thing about a beautiful evening in June is that it doesn’t tell you much about the drainage patterns of land. Everything is dry and nice and green.  The world is beautiful, and somehow it seems like it always will be. All I had to go by was Ivan’s two-sentence warning. Would I throw away a whole day’s work just because some old guy had something to say about drainage? I decided I would leave the stakes where they were and build as I planned. I couldn’t be wasting time redoing all I’d done that day.

When I woke up the next morning I had an unpleasant feeling in my stomach. It was new to me then, but I’ve since come to realize that this is the feeling I get when I’m face to face with a bad technical choice I’ve made. At that time I hadn’t yet developed my builder’s sense to the point where bad plans didn’t sometimes seem good. It took me most of the morning to decide to follow Ivan’s lead, to pull up the stakes and relocate them on the spot he recommended.  The whole relocation job took less than an hour,  so it was a much smaller deal than I imagined. Moving these stakes was also the single most important building decision I’ve ever made. It would be 1995, a few months after Ivan died of cancer, that I got a lump in my throat as I realized how close I came to disaster and how Ivan’s quick visit saved me.

The gully I’d originally chosen for the house didn’t look like a water course at quick glance in the summer, but if you look closely you could see that it’s actually part of a long, low place that crosses our front field – high in the east and lower moving west. Most winters the snow melts slowly enough that this gully doesn’t do much. But every 5 or 6 years things are different. When the snow melts quickly and we happen to get rain at the same time, that innocent gully where my house would have been turns into a fast flowing river 15 feet wide. Part of our laneway travels along this place and the water flow is fast enough to erode the gravel and limestone screenings that are hard-packed because of traffic. It would have been a massive disaster if we’d built our house on that spot. Following Ivan’s two small sentences – something I almost didn’t do – had made the difference.

It was March of 1995 – two months after Ivan had died – and I stood there in the middle of the rushing gully, watching angry meltwater roll around my rubber boots. I looked north and saw our house, high and dry and completely safe from the deluge. What a near miss I’d avoided nearly ten years earlier. It reminded me of the feeling I had when I turned the propellor over by hand to loosen up the engine on a Cessna 150 during winter at an airport I worked at while going to high school. I’d made the mistake of accidentally not switching off the ignition key after an attempt to fire up the plane with the electric start. I was in a hurry, I jumped out of the cockpit and rotated the propellor by hand to loosen up the thick motor oil. The engine roared to life with me standing right in front of the propellor and no one in the cockpit. If I’d left the throttle set any higher, that spinning prop would have been the last thing I’d seen. Lucky for me I’d left it set to little more than an idle. And lucky for me I’d reluctantly listened to a few words from an old guy who knew my land a lot better than I did. Ever since then I’ve made it a habit to listen to old people pretty closely. I recommend you do the same, even if you’re old yourself.

What to read chapter 10 of the Bailey Line Road Chronicles? Click here.


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